The Rev. John Taliaferro Thomas
A reasonable facsimile of what was preached on Sunday: always a reflection on the Word, but never the final word.
The Rev. John Taliaferro Thomas
Emmanuel Episcopal Church, Greenwood, Virginia
Proper 12, Year A
July 26, 2020
In the world of being a modern digital family, we have shared accounts. We have a family Netflix account to watch movies and documentaries. We have a family Amazon Prime account to buy books and watch more movies. We have a family Audible account to listen to, and share audio books. As are a multi-generational collective, it is fascinating to review our watch, read, and listen list.
Some of the newer titles are about race and contemporary politics, but throughout what I refer to as “Corona Time,” the Thomas collective has been circling back on some old favorites.
I cannot help but notice that we are trending toward classic narrative, uplifting stories of discovery and becoming, and some things that just make us laugh.
The Harry Potter books and movies have been getting some new listens and watches. That is a commitment as there are 7 books and 8 movies. While they are wild and fantastical, they are not all that complicated. Young Harry and his friends come of age throughout the series, finding their own voices, gifts, and foibles in a classic fight of good versus evil.
Another of our categories I would call: inspiring biography and history. Through the stories of real people, from folk musician James Taylor, to Alexander Hamilton (the Musical), we engage with the chances and changes of fate and history, complete with confessed flaws and unexpected greatness.
The last category, I will just call Pixar. This is a collective of animated stories about bugs in A Bug’s Life, loveable monsters in Monsters Inc. and Monsters University, and all of the characters of a young girl’s psyche in Inside Out. Here again, these stories are not complicated, but they are clever takes on realizing who we are, how we grow, and what we can do when we work together.
This romp through our watch and listen list is pretty typical as I have tracked the many popular watches and trends in streaming media. With more time at home, and less time out and about, we are connecting with more narrative style stories than ever. While there are plenty of tell all books and political polemics to be consumed out there, people are being drawn back to classic telling and retelling of coming of age stories, surprising success stories, and tales of discovering great joy and abundant life. When art does not exactly imitate life, we seek for art to inspire and reinvigorate life with hope and promise. A good story, well told, is good for the soul.
As we encounter Jesus in today’s gospel, we experience a rapid-fire set of parables (stories) about the Kingdom of Heaven. Matthew’s gospel is set up most like storytelling of all the gospels. When we think about this Kingdom of Heaven, we might expect fantastic, regal, and celestial special effects. We might think of a lavishly decorated place full of everything we want. We might look for a realm of conquering victory, good crushing evil, and some sort vindication of all that is holy and righteous and good. Instead we hear of a little mustard seed, yeast leavening flour, a treasure found in a field, a pearl picked out as precious, and a huge net full of fish.
When Jesus asks his people “Have you understood this?” Matthew reports that they answered “Yes.” I bet it sounded more like “Uh, yes? They had to be a little disappointed in the imagery. They had to be a little more expectant of something more fantastic, and grander when talking about the glorious “Kingdom of Heaven.” I suspect this because that may be our reaction as well. The metaphors are, at best, mixed. Nevertheless, there they are.
In context, we have a group of people following this amazing rabbi, prophet, and healer. They believe he is purely of God. They have seen him be and do what no mere human would be or could do. But they are also people who are occupied, oppressed, poor, and seemingly powerless. Again, and again, they ask when the big campaign, takeover, and divine reckoning will take place. They seek to be on the side of Jesus partially because they seek to be on God’s winning team. Instead, Jesus tells them about seeds, yeast, treasures and fish.
In wholeness of its telling, God’s story is not about conquest, victory, and domination. Those are earthly takes on power and prestige. Instead, God’s story is about the gentle and insistent force of love wearing down hatred, bitterness, and division. God’s story is about divine forgiveness and God’s work of changing what is ordinary into that which is extraordinary, even with the most basic elements.
The popular theologian, Richard Rohr, puts it this way: “Sometimes, God comes to you disguised as your life.” If we are seeking something fantastic, it is most likely to start out as something small. A seed is a remarkable thing, really. It is a bundle of energy and design that draws energy from water, soil, and sun, all working in concert to make something new and regenerative and quite spectacular. I see many sunflowers these days and wonder how on earth they became so grand, starting with a tiny little thing we eat in salads.
These days, we face big and daunting challenges. There is a pandemic race to combine science, ingenuity, and hard work to find good medicine and vaccines. There are standards of public health and safety all of us need to tend and enable. There are problems of racial and economic inequity demanding thoughtful and active engagement. And there are our children, parents, and teachers facing the impossible realities of beginning a school year. My biggest worry was what to wear on the first day. Their situation is really tough.
We are tempted to throw up our hands, declare everything too complicated, too polarizing, and too impossible to address. But the Gospel story, and all of the other great stories we come back to over and over, do not end in futility and despair. Instead, they tell us of the simple power of goodness applied liberally and regularly. They show us love extending us beyond what may be easy or comfortable, beginning with small, but great things.
This is the story that is our destiny. This is the story that remains as the truth of what is to be. While we have a role in it, the story is not about us. The story is about God. It about finding greatness in the common and ordinary matter of life. It is about coming of age, the power of working together, and the embedded giftedness in all creation.
Why do we come back to this story again and again even in dark times? Because it is true, because it is great, and because God is continuing to tell it in and through us. Amen.
The Rev. John Thomas is Rector of Emmanuel Episcopal Church, Greenwood